10 Geeky Butterfly Facts to Share With Your Kids

Eastern tiger swallowtail on butterfly bush. Photo: Maryann Goldman.
Eastern tiger swallowtail on butterfly bush. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Summer vacation provides a fantastic opportunity to spend some time with your kids learning about nature. I know it’s hot out there in August, and that it may take some extra motivation for you and your kids to leave the comfort of air conditioning and go outside, but I promise it will be worth it. Science is all around us, and I encourage you to take a few minutes to enjoy it with your kids.

I’m particularly interested in insects, and one of the creatures that fascinates me personally, as well as my kids, is butterflies. We see them in our yard. We see them at local parks. We see them at various museum butterfly houses. They are everywhere, and there’s something magical about watching a butterfly flutter past.

Sulpher butterfly. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Sulphur butterfly. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Without stopping and telling your kids that you’re going to flat out teach them something, I suggest that you casually interject a few interesting facts into your conversation. Seize the opportunity of your child starting to chase a butterfly across the yard. Take a moment to engage your child as they stop to watch a butterfly move from flower to flower.

Sometimes I stand out in the humid and hot North Carolina sun just to watch butterflies and take pictures. I’ve been known to snap 100 pictures in 15 minutes hoping to capture just the perfect one. You know. The one where the wings are all in focus. The one where the sun perfectly illuminates the wings. The one where the colors aren’t washed out. The one where the butterfly is perfectly perched on a beautiful flower. It’s an endless passion for me, and it’s one my kids are quick to pick up on. When your child sees you being passionate about something, they are bound to follow suit.

Eastern tiger swallowtail on coneflower. Photo: Maryann Goldman.
Eastern tiger swallowtail on coneflower. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

So, what geeky butterfly facts can you share with your child? There are so many to choose from!

Fact 1 – Did you know that the straw-shaped tube that a butterfly uses to suck nectar from flowers is called a proboscis? There are a lot of interesting butterfly anatomy vocabulary words that you can introduce your child to.
Fact 2 – Is that butterfly really a butterfly, or is it a moth? There’s an easy method to tell a butterfly from a moth. Take a close-up look at the antennae. Butterfly antennae are long and slender with a bump on the end. Moth antennae are feathered and much wider.
Fact 3 – Do you know how long butterflies live? Some live as short as a week while Monarchs can live up to 9 months. The average lifespan is about a month.
Fact 4 – Why do you sometimes see butterflies down in the mud instead of on a pretty flower? They are looking for minerals and sodium. It’s a process called mud-puddling. Males are more likely to exhibit this behavior than females.
Fact 5 – The inevitable question…where do butterflies come from? It’s a great time to introduce the butterfly life cycle from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly.
Fact 6 – Did you know that there are a lot of artists out there that take the wings of naturally expired butterflies and turn them into jewelry and other crafts? I own a pendant, bracelet, and pair of earrings, and they always make for great conversation pieces when I wear them. Butterflies also make for interesting photo art. Sometimes you can take an ordinary butterfly picture and make it extraordinary.

Butterfly wings mandala. Photo Art: Maryann Goldman
Butterfly wings mandala. Photo Art: Maryann Goldman
Butterfly crystal ball. Photo Art: Maryann Goldman
Butterfly crystal ball. Photo Art: Maryann Goldman

Fact 7 – How many types of butterflies are there? According to the North American Butterfly Association, “There are approximately 20,000 species of butterflies in the world. About 725 species have occurred in North American north of Mexico, with about 575 of these occurring regularly in the lower 48 states of the United States, and with about 275 species occurring regularly in Canada. Roughly 2000 species are found in Mexico.” Each area of the country and part of the world has its own butterfly varieties. This is similar to the differences you would see in birds as you travel. So if you’re familiar with the butterfly species that live in your own backyard, when you travel, it can be fascinating to study the different varieties you see along the way.
Fact 8 – Did you know that if you see a butterfly with a broken wing that’s having trouble flying that you might be able to assist? Yep, some people will follow a set of instructions to repair a butterfly wing. I’ve never tried this, but now that I know, I might be tempted. Obviously, this is something kids shouldn’t attempt on their own, but if you happen upon a dead butterfly, I suggest encouraging your kids to treat it as a specimen and study it.
Fact 9 – Where do butterflies sleep at night? Well, they typically sleep under leaves. This protects them from rain that might fall at night as well as from becoming bird food in the early morning.
Fact 10 – Talking about butterflies is a great way to introduce the topics of conservation and migration. The 3-D movie Flight of the Butterflies talks about the plight of Monarchs and their migratory path. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

Monarch on zinnia. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Monarch on zinnia. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Not quite ready to get out in the heat to enjoy the butterflies? Look for a butterfly house near you! Conveniently, there is a website that lists butterfly houses by state. You might be surprised to find one closer than you expect. We often visit our favorite butterfly house, the Magic Wings Butterfly House at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina. We’ve had many fascinating butterfly encounters there including having butterflies land on our outstretched finger. If you do plan a butterfly house visit, check to see if they have a butterfly release time. Kids love that!

Johnny fascinated with a butterfly at the Magic Wings Butterfly House butterfly release. Photo: Maryann Goldman.
Johnny fascinated with a butterfly at the Magic Wings Butterfly House butterfly release. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

I hope you enjoy this factual and visual tour of the butterflies in my yard and hometown. Happy butterfly watching!

Bye bye. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Bye bye. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Get the GeekDad Books for the Holidays!